The Gendered Dimension of High-Stakes Security Diplomacy – The Iran Deal from Another Perspective

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

The notable absence of women from high-profile peace and mediation processes has been an ongoing concern of those advancing the women, peace and security agenda over the past fifteen years. Women constitute less than 2% of peace process mediators deployed by the United Nations to major conflict zones, rarely assuming the key negotiator role in high-stakes inter-state negotiations. There are some noteworthy exceptions. Former Irish President Mary Robinson was appointed by the UN Secretary General as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region in 2013. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize award given to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman came with explicit recognition of their struggle for participation in peacebuilding and negotiation processes in Liberia and Yemen.

Despite the achievements of these leaders and the significant political roles played by women in many domestic contexts, women are generally seen as lacking the deep diplomatic credentials required for conflict, political settlement and reconstruction negotiations. This is partially the result of long-standing institutional hiring and deployment practices within the Foreign Ministries that that make up the mainstay of bodies providing the diplomatic corps for international organizations and high-level diplomatic appointment. When hiring for diplomatic positions, which often include long stints in postings that are high-risk, unstable, or otherwise unsuitable for family deployments states de facto exclude women with care responsibilities and/or children.  In practice, this results in perceptions of women as unsuitable or under-qualified for negotiation and mediation roles. The end result is that the “theatre” of negotiations and mediations is a highly masculine environment. In these settings, senior positions are held by men while most of their administrative and support staff are women.

However, the recent P5+1 Iran negotiations stand out from this pattern—where men negotiate and women take notes—in symbolic and practically important ways. Women led these negotiations in highly visible ways. Principle female leads included Helga Maria Schmid, Deputy Secretary General for the EU External Action Service (EAS), Wendy Sherman US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief diplomat and former Italian foreign minister. Mogherini took over her role from Baroness Catherine Ashton of the UK who had previously laid substantial ground work in the nuclear negotiations. Schmid is credited with extraordinary technical skill, and described by some commentators as a “linchpin” in the negotiations. Sherman is a veteran diplomat, embedded in US nuclear talks with Iran since 2011, with a reservoir of knowledge and practice in nuclear negotiations acquired while addressing North Korea’s nuclear capacity. 

Reflecting on the difference it made to have a significant number of women in lead role in these negotiations, Mogherini said:

“So it was somehow new, but it’s my personal feeling that it was helpful … The fact of having many women at the table in key positions helped us be concrete and pragmatic the whole way.”

While lauding the singularity of these negotiations and the symbolic significance of having a sizeable number of women directing the shape and content of negotiations, my point is not an essentialist one. I am not suggesting that the mere presence of women in complex political negotiations will inevitably produce different kinds of political agreements. Nor am I saying that political agreements will even be “better” (by whatever measure) by the presence of more women. But, there is sizeable significance in getting women to the table in substantial numbers for high-profile multi-state negotiations.  It matters symbolically and practically that women lead political settlement processes and are present in sizeable numbers.

The CEDAW Committee affirmed in General Recommendation 30, that there is a pressing need to include women in preventative diplomacy and on global issues, including military expenditure and nuclear disarmament. The recently-published General General Recommendation makes clear that gender-blind conflict prevention measures cannot adequately predict and prevent conflict. Only by including female stakeholders and experts and using a gendered analysis in preventative diplomacy and conflict anticipation can State parties genuinely design appropriate measures to prevent and prevent conflict.

The bottom line is that the presence of women in political decision-making is a necessary—but not itself sufficient—condition to ensure transformative outcomes as measured by gender. The female face of the Iran negotiations is a welcome move away from the days of the “third sex behind the diplomatic nameplate,” as a new generation of senior female diplomats hold sway. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).